Pico Iyer Journeys

I'm Not Your Man

He gives us a sense of what Zen training leads towards, in short, but he never glosses over the anger and confusion that brought him to it and remain. That’s why, even after thirty years of hanging out with his friend Sasaki, he still felt the need to come down from the mountain and amplify the teaching elsewhere. As Simmons points out, by early 1999 Cohen had been a monk for five and a half years and all he felt was a depression and emptiness as deep as any, befitting one who’d “come to the end of the road.” His rigor and his restlessness refuse to settle for easy answers and I was impressed, talking to him in his monastery, when he told me that he had no real interest in making music again, he’d given up smoking and would never go to India (because of its indiscipline and disorder); when I saw him four months later, he had a synthesizer in his cabin and a cigarette in his hands and, not many seasons on, he was spending five months at a stretch in India.

Some of the most moving passages in Simmons’s book come in describing Cohen’s trips to Mumbai to sit every morning at the feet of Romesh Balsekar, a former bank president who gave informal talks on non-dualism every morning in his apartment. The wandering rock-star stayed in an anonymous two-star hotel, she writes, and occasionally took friends to an unassuming tea-stall; he declined every invitation from the rich and famous, but at one point (an Indian man who knew him in that life tells her) went to a taxi-driver’s home in the slums. He never went in for psychology, Simmons (herself British) points out, because “his dignity and an almost British stiff upper lip” forbade it; but he put himself through even more intense challenges in trying to break through divisions in the self and in the world.

The other thing that comes across, again and again, is his kindness. We read here of his driving across L.A. to help a receptionist he didn’t know well find her long-haired cat (and then ministering to the cat close-up, chanting into its forehead, even as his allergy to cats reduced him to sniffling and tears); he’s always tended to others with a gentleness and thoroughness he hasn’t often extended to himself. At the National Film Board of Canada, I once heard about a street person who’d been suddenly admitted to hospital. When the doctors asked him how he’d pay for his treatment, he kept on saying, blithely, “My friend Leonard will take care of it.” The physicians took this as further proof of derangement—until the checks started regularly arriving, signed, “Leonard Cohen.”

In the realm of the song, it’s his unflinchingness, mingled with his polished depth and craft, that will make him endure. Bob Dylan gives us riddles, often to throw us off his trail; Cohen gives us riddles that take us deeper—and deeper—into the heart of things, and the paradoxes he chooses to embody on our behalf. The fact that we cannot always resolve our longing for love and the sensual world with the need to find our own truth; the fact that we know the truth of impermanence but hide from it at every other moment. The way that we break every rule we’ve made for ourselves and then pretend it’s somebody else’s fault. “Let me cry Help beside you, Teacher,” he was writing way back in 1961.

What he’s done, as man and artist, is to express his most anguished feelings in a formal frame that gives them both precision and suggestiveness. And seem to take everything seriously except himself (which means he can’t take his taking of everything seriously, either—another reason, perhaps, why he’s always been highly popular in Europe, and fairly popular in Canada, but often failed to find an audience in the U.S.). Towards the end of Simmons’s book, we twice see Cohen shed tears: once in writing a letter of parting (again) to his longtime partner in music and life, Anjani; and once when, after being awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in Spain, he listens to friends pay him tribute. From a man of such self-possession and collectedness, the release is all the more affecting.

The deeper you go into the self—or its erasure–the more you will get from Cohen, I suspect. The name Sasaki gave him, “Jikan,” often mistranslated (not least by me), is here rendered as referring to “the silence between two thoughts.” When the singer Ronee Blakley refers to the little, black-robed Japanese man who sat in on some Cohen recording sessions in 1977, she calls him “the kind of man you wanted to be around, funny, kind and disciplined.” That’s probably as good a description of Cohen, too, as exists. Sylvie Simmons has meticulously collected all the evidence that allows us to enter the house of Cohen and see all its furniture; but if you want to see what’s truly there—and not there—the only place to turn is the songs.

Everything is provisional, they tell us, and in our suffering lies our truth. “Earth has no escape from Heaven,” as Eckhart put it, and we can’t expect to find holiness anywhere–or expect not to find it either. Death is round the corner, the jig is up, and that’s what enables us to see, to briefly cherish the light. “You have to sit in the very bonfire of {your} distress,” Cohen told a visitor to Mount Baldy, “and you sit there till you’re burned away and it’s ashes and it’s gone.” Few artists have given us the ashes and the going with such clarity, a clarity that burns–and then lights the darkness up.

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